I didn’t like Shenzhen at all.
It’s the success story of the New China – built with foreign and local investment; big, flashy, new. People come from all over China to make their fortune, and so even though Shenzhen is in a Cantonese-speaking region, Mandarin* is the lingua franca here.
At first glance, it’s an impressive, cosmopolitan city, full of skyscrapers and nightclubs and modern concrete flyovers. But if you look a bit closer, the glamour disappears. After a while, the skyscrapers all look the same: mirrorglass facing, a lobby with potted plants, and the logo of Japanese technology company at the top. The nightclubs are overpriced, depressing, and full of people asking you if you’d like them to introduce a few nice girls. And the concrete flyovers, new just a few years ago, are already cracked and crumbling.
“No thanks,” I reply in Chinese, “but if you can tell me where I can find a payphone, I’d be much-obliged.”
I’d just bought a ticket back to Beijing for a train leaving the next day. This was a change from my original plan, which had been to go to Chengdu and Chongqing, and then continue to Shanghai and Nanjing, but in Shenzhen I decided that (a) the South is too hot, (b) travelling around on your own is less fun than travelling with others, and (c) it would be nice to be able to use my fucking ATM card.
My train left the next day, so I was stuck finding a hotel. I’d stayed at a hostel the night before — it was cheap and fairly comfortable, but also out in the sticks, where cab fare to and from the train station brought the price of a night up to about what I’d have paid for a more central hotel.
Mr. Hello-DVD led me out of the mall we were in (I’d just gone there to get out of the rain) and across the footbridge, back towards the train station, and down some steps to a bank of payphones, where I called my mother, assured her that I was more-or-less probably doing OK, kind of, and told her of my change in plans.
Then I agreed to go with Mr. DVD and buy a few movies; he’d been helpful and nice, and hey, I can always use more movies.
I ended up sitting in a fabric shop on the mall’s fifth floor, chatting with him and his bosses and flipping through shoeboxes full of software and DVDs. They complimented me more or less constantly on my Chinese, which made them cool in my book, and we talked for about an hour and a half. Finally, I mention that I’m in Shanzhen for another night, and ask if they know of any cheap hotels.
“Sure – I’ll take you around and we’ll find one,” said DVD Man, and so we left, talking away in Chinese and drawing surprised stares from people in the elevator on the way out.
We went around from hotel to hotel, but they were neither fantastically cheap* or all that clean. After we’d gone to a few hotels near the station, he turned to me and said: “Tell you what – you can stay at my place. It’s not far, and I won’t charge you anything. How’s that sound?”
I said that it sounded great, and we headed off for his place. We finally introduced ourselves in the taxi, me as Ou Bo’en* and he as Liu Shiyong*, 27 years old, from Jiangsu Province.
We got out of the cab about a block down Renmin Street from the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, walked down a side street, then turned down another side street lined with barbershops, slipped into a narrow alley next to a Hui* restaurant, walked for about 100 metres, then turned again, and again, and again, until finally we were in front of a three-story concrete building.
“In here,” Shiyong said, and then led me through the “family room” – also concrete, and bare except for a TV and a few kids watching same – and into his room.
The word “room” might not be entirely accurate. The first floor was divided into two halves – the bathroom/living room half, and the other half, partitioned by thin sheets of plywood with newspapers glued to them. Shiyong’s partition was smaller than my closet-sized dorm room last year; his floor was bare concrete; his bed was a plank with a thin bamboo mat over it; his electrical outlet was a cord run in from the street through a window.
“I’m embarassed to bring you here,” he said. “This alley is the crappiest place in Shenzhen.”
I assured him that it was perfectly fine, that in fact it actually reminded me of home.
“You must be tired from carrying your backpack – take a nap for a while, and then I’ll show you around.”
So we went out, Shiyong and I. We stopped at the Hui restaurant we’d passed earlier and got lunch there. The owner was impressed and delighted by my ability to eat the spicy meat cakes they made; he yelled at the cook to go easy on the hot peppers when I ordered, and when I replied that hot food was no problem, he smiled and nodded, then continued telling the cook not to put in too many lajiao.
Afterwards, we walked around Renmin Street for an hour or so, then caught a bus down to the Plum Sands Beach and watched people swimming until the sun set and it started pouring rain. Then we grabbed another bus back into town. It was about 9:30, and I asked Shiyong which places were fun at this time of night. He replied that there were a few nightclubs near the train station, and so we set out looking for one of those after we arrived in the centre of town.
Shiyong was wearing a grubby work shirt, worn slacks, and flip-flops. The nightclub hostesses looked at him with palpable disdain as we walked in, but he was with a foreigner – a mark of class if ever there was one. He and I started laughing as soon as the hostess seated us and walked off with her nose in the air. We ordered a few beers – my treat, I insisted; give me face – and sat back to watch karaoke and, I shit you not, a floorshow done to a disco remix of ‘The Entertainer.’
We took a bicycle rickshaw back to his place. It was cheaper than a cab, but perhaps not the best idea for someone who, like Shiyong, has a low beer tolerance. The Hui restaurant was still open when we passed by, so we stopped in there and got a few skewers of roasted lamb and meat patties. The owner said that he’d make up a bag of the beef patties for me to take on the train the next day, and gave Shiyong a couple bottles of water, on the house.
The plank was more comfortable than I’d expected it to be.
The next morning, we walked down a different series of twists and turns in the alley complex to a Hakka* restaurant, where we got a breakfast of soup and lamb with rice. Again, we chatted with the owner and his wife; they were just opening up as we arrived, and the owner’s wife had to keep running over to the skillet to get the fire started again. In the stretch of alley next to the restaurant, some kids were playing at an apparently-communal pool table, arguing loudly over who had or hadn’t potted the cue ball. When we left, the owner’s wife made up a little baggie of chicken feet for me to eat on the train.
The owner of the Hui restaurant gave me 6 beef patties — on the house, despite my pleas.
Shiyong and I ran to the train station, arriving with just enough time to say goodbye before I scrambled on board.
“Maybe I’ll come visit you in Harbin,” he said. “Or maybe we’ll meet up again in Shenzhen. Look for me if you ever get a chance to come back. I’ll still be at the mall.”
“And look me up if you get a chance to come to Harbin. I’ll be around, and you have my number. Take care, man.”
“Take care. Have a good trip.”
And then I was off on a 25-hour ride to Beijing.
The beef patties, I found, were every bit as good cold as they were warm.